California hospital tickles the funny bone for humor and for health


LOS ANGELES -- Punch the doc, go ahead. He's given you enough shots -- now it's your turn.

Don't worry, it won't hurt. The "doctor" is a helium-filled balloon shaped like Humpty Dumpty with a drawn-on stethoscope. And as long as you're at the hospital, go ahead and tweek the red, round foam nose of the staff person next to him. Oh, the assistant hospital administrator won't mind -- he has a button of a madly laughing juggler on his pin-striped suit.

It's not just for fun -- it's good for you.

Kaiser Permanente hospital in Panorama City recently kicked off its Humor and Health campaign with the help of volunteers, who decorated the main lobby with balloons and encouraged staff members to add comic touches to their usual work clothes. The humor campaign includes a closed-circuit TV channel offering classics from Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and "I Love Lucy," as well as cartoons and current movies.

Humor committee members also are planning to get a mascot to cheer up children and adults and hand out teddy bears. Volunteers raised more than $40,000 to pay for the humor campaign.

Doctors say the use of humor in healing has taken off, citing a study of patients who watched comedies from their hospital beds. The study found that laughter causes the brain to produce endorphins, the brain's natural opium, said Dr. Leon Cohen, the hospital's assistant medical director.

"I think that humor is very important in helping patients recover emotionally," said Cohen, who spit out his gum given by a visiting Mickey Mouse so he could talk. "Emotions play a big part in the healing process."

Writer Norman Cousins, who died last year from a heart attack, was a big booster of the power of laughter and prompted doctors to take a new look at how humor helps patients. Cousins, who wrote a best-selling book in 1979 on his recovery from a life-threatening form of arthritis, had said Marx Brothers movies and other comedies helped him forget pain so he could sleep.

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